Cultural Econ.: A Working Definition

I will take the opportunity at the beginning of this new year to thank Winston Crown Publishing House for inviting me to continue writing these articles under their banner. It has been a delight to work with them since their publishing of my book, What’cha Gonna Do With What’cha Got? in1982. I look forward to sharing with my reading friends the ongoing literary adventure of investigation, information, and inspiration. Thanks for the opportunity


In especially the last twenty-five articles, we have talked a lot about Cultural Economics. Perhaps it is time to inject some basic definitions. The word economicscomes from the Greek words oikos (a house) and nemein (to manage) and quite simply deals with the efficient allocation and management of goods and services.

I like to think of economics as the study of making good choices under conditions of scarcity . . . or even abundance. Economics is not all about charts with axis points, slopes, and curves. To me, economics is all about people. People with their emotions of love, joy, surprise, anger, sadness, and fear make up cultures, and cultures affect economics. And, of course, in turn, the chosen system of economics affects the cultures and individual persons.

Cultural Economics is the branch of economics that concerns itself with the relationship of culture to economic outcomes. It studies how various aspects of human cultures interact with economic events, behaviors and conditions. A given culture will even influence the political system with its traditions, religious beliefs, the formation of institutions, and the value ascribed to individuals.

Sometimes folks raise their eyebrows at me when I suggest to them that the major defense for the existence of economists is to accurately predict the future. They are expected to be fortune tellers. They collect their data about what is apparently going on in the world, compile their evidence, and arrange it neatly on charts and graphs. Then, they go back to their study cubicles and see if their data matches up with what they had been espousing as a theory of truth. There is a supposition with economists that future reality will be an extension of past reality. If they feel their findings are trustworthy enough, they project into the future some expected outcome. If they are right about the future they become acclaimed economists . . . if not, they go to work for the government.

Economics, however, is a great practical exercise and is not a Dismal Science, as Thomas Carlyle referred to it in his essay written in 1849. When we consider that there are well over seven billion individuals alive on earth today, and they are each making scores of individual choices right now, it is a bit overwhelming. Each person is involved in trying to figure out how to make better choices regarding efficiently allocating and managing the resources of land, labor, capital, and entrepreneurs, and how they are going to organize and manage the production of millions and millions of goods and services all at the same time.

In the studying of cultural economics we have the thrill of taking some basic principles of economics and combining them with the unpredictable thoughts, choices, and actions of over seven billion people on earth today. That makes for an exciting adventure that can open our eyes to the understanding of motives, methods, behaviors, successes, and failures regarding our world’s resources and human life styles. Follow the money.

My love and interdisciplinary bias certainly leans toward the behavioral aspects of the study of economics rather than the pure analytical number crunching of the econometrics laboratory. So, the notes and research findings presented in the future articles will be aimed at how people affect economic systems and how cultures are affected by economic choices. Who knows, I might even throw in some moral observations I have witnessed in my travels around the world regarding peoples’ influence on economics, and the economic influences on the cultures of this old world. 

Next Week: Scarcity, choice, and cost.

(Research ideas from Dr. Jackson’s new writing project on Cultural Economics)

© Dr. James W. Jackson  

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